Health and Wellness
“The Mommy Instinct” and Vaccinations

“The Mommy Instinct” and Vaccinations

“Mommy instincts:” that’s what Jenny McCarthy called them.1 You know, those innate feelings you get about your kids when they’re lying to you, or right before they knock over that glass jar on the counter. These instincts kick in about kids’ health, too. It’s a sense of detecting what other people can’t. And since Jenny McCarthy appeared on a 2007 Oprah show, in which she blamed the MMR vaccine for her son’s autism, many mothers have identified with her “mommy instincts” when it comes to vaccination.

McCarthy’s maternal denouncement of vaccines on a popular and trusted daytime show created an atmosphere of fear in western households. Furthermore, Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 fraudulent study made a reappearance; not only had a mother blamed her son’s illness on vaccination, but a well-known scientific journal had published equally damning evidence about the same vaccine. Rumors and misinformation, coupled with the medical community’s disparaging attitude toward anti-vaccinationist mothers, has created a relationship fraught with complex and emotional rhetoric. There may be no clear solution, but understanding the historical and contemporary context of the mother-vaccine relationship is a start.

Lithography of Jenner vaccinating a child in its mother's arms while she looks at him, in a domestic setting
Published in 1830, French lithographer Jean-Louis Tirpenne showed Edward Jenner vaccinating a young child held by its mother. (Jean-Louis Tirpenne/Wellcome Library | CC BY)

We can trace this relationship to the early nineteenth century. Similar to the contemporary medical community, Victorian-era physicians made vaccinations compulsory without consideration of the relationship between mothers and vaccination — mothers feared that vaccines would actually kill their children, not just give them disabilities. Even then, mothers were a crucial part of vaccine administration. In one early nineteenth-century lithograph, Edward Jenner vaccinates a young child sitting on his mother’s knee. The image exudes calm and happiness — the mother looks at Jenner with an appreciative smile.

The scene depicts vaccination as a pleasant form of public health, one welcomed by mothers and doctors alike. Other images from the period show similar serene performances. Jenner, the acknowledged father of the vaccine, is always the doctor.

An illustration showing Edward Jenner vaccinating a young child, held by its mother, with a man behind taking cowpox from a cow
A positive depiction of vaccination, showing Edward Jenner vaccinating a young child, held by its mother, with a man behind taking cowpox from a cow, 1820s. (Wellcome Library | CC BY)

In the late nineteenth century, French engraver E. Hamman Gravé portrayed Jenner vaccinating his own son. This illustration reflects a changed consideration of vaccination. Catharine Jenner, the mother, wears a more serious expression, her eyes concentrated on her husband’s face with worry, contrasting sharply with earlier images of mothers holding their children during vaccinations.

Even Jenner’s son looks different. Earlier images show children facing Jenner; this boy’s face is turned away from the ivory point as it approaches his skin. Even the maid looks worried. No one smiles, especially not at the doctor. It is a more serious depiction of vaccination that shows a mother’s distrust in vaccination at its start.

Edward Jenner, vaccinating his young child, held by Mrs Jenner; a maid rolls up her sleeve, a man stands outside holding a cow. Coloured engraving by C. Manigaud after E Hamman
Depiction of Jenner vaccinating his son, who is held by his concerned mother, from the late 19th century. (E. Harmann Gravé/Wellcome Library | CC BY)

By Gravé’s time, the anti-vaccination movement was in full force. Mothers were, unsurprisingly, at its forefront. Nadja Durbach has shown in her analysis of the Victorian anti-vaccination movement how mothers feared for their children’s lives if they received vaccination.2 While twenty-first century mothers are afraid of autism, Victorian mothers were worried that vaccination could kill. Gravé’s depiction of a worried Catharine Jenner suggests this national concern.

Beyond the anti-vaccination movement, though, the relationship between British mothers and smallpox vaccination was more complex. In 1804, Reverend Bell of Dorset stated, “I have the mortification to find that the efficacy of this disorder is still disputed, and that parents still decline to submit their children to this simple operation.”3 In 1852, London’s Times reported that parents were “objecting” to vaccines “from having been told that several children died in consequence of vaccination.”4

These parents refused to have their children vaccinated due to misinformation and fear. In 1857, Edward Jay suggested that the British medical community do a better job of disseminating truthful information. He targeted mothers, who he believed feared the “slight pain” the vaccination would cause their children.5 While Jay blamed these mothers for the lack of child vaccinations, he also conceded that the medical community failed to dispel the rumors that influenced anti-vaccinationist mothers, and so was at fault almost as much as the mothers.

But not all mothers were anti-vaxxers; many readily submitted their children to it. When William Woodville experimented with vaccination at his Smallpox Hospital, he relied on mothers to supply information about the progress of their children’s vaccinations. One mother brought her three daughters — Hannah, Sophia, and Sarah — to Woodville for vaccination. Woodville knew of their progress through their “mother’s report,” indicating the mother’s accession to vaccination for her daughters.6

This anecdote illuminates the nuanced the relationship between mothers and vaccines. This mother trusted the smallpox vaccine to prevent her daughters from contracting smallpox, thus keeping them safe and healthy. More importantly, though, she was in control of her daughters and the information Woodville received; she used her motherly instincts rather than relying solely on the doctor. Even though she had her children vaccinated, she differed little from her anti-vaccinationist counterparts, maintaining control over her children’s health when making medical decisions.

Motherly acceptance and rejection of childhood smallpox vaccination also occurred in other locations within the British Empire. In the Cape Colony, for instance, Johanna Regensberg and Catherine Wagner protested the widespread use of arm-to-arm vaccination given rumors of how it spread leprosy. They believed their daughters had contracted leprosy after receiving the procedure.7

What is interesting about Regensberg and Wagner is not their anti-vaccinationist stance; rather, they had their daughters vaccinated and objected to the manner in which the vaccination took place. They had no issue with vaccination itself, only the way in which doctors administered it.

Whether in Britain or Empire, mothers felt obligated to maintain their children’s well-being. Rumors of children dead or diseased from vaccination were enough to terrify the most careful mothers. Even when the British Parliament passed compulsory vaccination laws, notably the 1857 law which applied stricter fines and prison sentences, mothers trusted their instincts and did what they thought best for their children. They could handle fines if their children were safe.

Screenshot of a news report titled: Australian vaccine rates are at an all-time high after government removes antivaxxers benefits
Screenshot of a news report on Australian vaccination rates and the anti-vaccination movement on the website, Science Alert, by BBC Crew, August 3 2016. (Kristin Brig)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this contention between mothers and the government persists today. In August 2016, for example, the Australian government took a drastic move regarding compulsory vaccination. If Australian mothers refused to vaccinate their children for preventable diseases like measles, the government revoked their access to health benefits.

For mothers who fear vaccination, this situation only heightens their anxiety. As with nineteenth-century British mothers, some Australian mothers today face destitution because of compulsory vaccine legislation.8 Whether they receive the correct information about vaccines seems a secondary thought. Compulsory vaccination enforcement means mothers need to be aware of vaccinations’ benefits, not just risks. They need to be reassured that vaccinations will help their children, not hurt them.

During a recent study performed by the College of Charleston’s Women’s Health Research Team, women discussed their thoughts on Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. One woman said she had heard about the shot, but didn’t think she had enough information to advocate for its use. Another woman was skeptical of its benefits: “I know that [cervical cancer] is hard to detect and it’s horrible, but I don’t know that tons of women get it … I don’t know if the vaccine is actually preventing HPV.” Like Victorian mothers and smallpox vaccines, every mother had a different case for, or against, Gardasil. For the two mothers above, there was uncertainty about whether Gardasil was worth it.

Other mothers had a more enthusiastic response. In one example, a mother had her son vaccinated because of generational issues: “[His pediatrician] and I talked about it, and thought it was a good idea. I mean, my great-grandmother died from cervical cancer, and they’re pretty sure that’s probably what the cause was, I mean, now, so that’s what most of it’s caused by.” She later stated, “If you can prevent something, why not?” Like the mother of three daughters under Woodville’s charge, this mother also trusted her instincts when it came to her son’s health. She looked to the doctor for advice, but ultimately had her son vaccinated based on her own opinion.

For these women, Victorian and contemporary, vaccination was more of an instinctual choice than a scientific one. “Mommy instincts” seem to impact mothers far more than scientific papers do. As such, the relationship between mothers and vaccinations is more complicated than the media and science suggests.

In a July 2017 BBC News report on Charlie Gard, the recent controversial case concerning whether or not to administer treatment to a baby with mitochondrial depletion syndrome, psychologist Uta Frith remarked, “Scientific reasoning cannot be completely stripped of emotion. Perhaps this is an asset we need to cultivate more. Reasoned evidence needs champions to engage the hearts of people.”9 Although Frith spoke in the context of Charlie Gard, his statement also captures something about mother-vaccination relationships. Scientific papers and queries can only take vaccination so far. Approaching childhood vaccination requires both scientific reasoning and understanding — neither excludes the other.


  1. Emily Chivers Yochim and Vesta T. Silva, “Everyday Expertise, Autism, and ‘Good’ Mothering in the Media Discourse of Jenny McCarthy,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 10, no. 4 (December 2013): 406-426. Return to text.
  2. Nadja Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004). Return to text.
  3. A. Bell, “Letter to the Editor,” Times, November 8, 1804. Return to text.
  4. “The Public Health,” Times, November 11, 1852. Return to text.
  5. “Smallpox and Vaccination,” Times, February 26, 1857. Return to text.
  6. William Woodville, Observations on the Cow-Pock (London: William Philips, 1800), 72-3. Return to text.
  7. Cape of Good Hope Leprosy Commission 1894, Minutes of Evidence, Vol. I (Cape Town: W.A. Richards & Sons, 1894), 503. Return to text.
  8. Working-class mothers especially who refused vaccination faced heavy fines from the British government. Return to text.
  9. For more information on the Charlie Gard case, see Richard Griffith, “The Role of the Courts in Disagreements Over the Care of Seriously Ill Babies,” British Journal of Nursing 26, no. 15 (2017): 894-5; Julian Savulescu, “Is it in Charlie Gard’s Best Interest to Die?” The Lancet 382, no. 10082 (May 13-19, 2017): 1868-9; Robert D. Truog, “The United Kingdon Sets Limits on Experimental Treatments: The Case of Charlie Gard,” JAMA (July 20, 2017). Return to text.

Kristin is a PhD candidate in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation examines the intersection of water management and public health in nineteenth-century colonial South Africa, focusing on the ways port city administrators and residents collaborated and conflicted over how best to deal with their hydrological environments.